Public perception of robots is usually characterized by what we see in the movies. On one extreme, robots are perceived as dangerous, hell-bent on world domination and human enslavement, as portrayed in the Terminator franchise.
Another extreme is where robots are programmed to be ever ready at our beck and call, as seen in the movie inspired by Isaac Asimov’s novelette – The Bicentennial Man.
And there’s also the disturbing notion where robots can be manipulated to turn against the human race after years of serving them as depicted in I, Robot – also a work from Asimov.
Now, there’s a new term introduced just to ‘rewire’ things up – cobots.
First, let’s clarify the differences between these two from the angle of their use cases.
Robots are generally used in heavy manufacturing such as automotive, construction, and machinery. They are designed to be heavy-duty and able to handle high payloads, while maintaining optimum speed and performance.
They automate processes that are either too dangerous or repetitive for humans, fully replacing human functions.
Some of the tasks include processing hazardous materials or handling heavy equipment. That’s why robots are set up to work in isolation, usually in cages separated from humans for safety reasons.
While collaborative robots, or cobots for short, work alongside humans to facilitate or expedite their tasks. Due to this specific objective, they are designed to be more deliberate and dexterous in terms of movement.
The payload of a cobot is usually limited to 20 pounds while its reach is less than 50 inches. Cobots are deployed side-by-side with factory workers to complete labor-intensive jobs such as parts assembly, pick-and-place, and palletizing.
Cobots are also used for machine tending, process tasks (when appended with end-effector tools for gluing, welding, and drilling), dispensing, painting, and coating.
Although cobots are now used across multiple industries such as healthcare and agriculture, some companies are still reluctant to incorporate them into their workforce.
The primary reason is the fear that cobots will eventually replace human personnel, rendering people jobless. Yet, having collaborative robots in your workforce does have some associated benefits.
By assigning cobots to do the more mundane and repetitive tasks, your employees’ time is freed up to do more value-added and meaningful ones. They can do overall monitoring and inspection to ensure smooth operations and detect onsets of breakdowns.
Productivity will be increased through optimized and streamlined operations as your people would have more time to strategize to achieve these goals.
You might have heard of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI), an occupational hazard caused by doing repetitive movements. People who have to do recurrent work on heavier weights are susceptible to it.
This is where cobots come in. They can handle weights up to 20 pounds, without breaking a sweat! By getting the cobots to take over, your employees have lesser risk of developing RSI. This way, fewer people go on sick leave, Lost Time Injury (LTI) gets reduced, and productivity gets a boost too.
Compared to their heavy-duty counterparts, cobots are easily programmable. Human operators can manually move them to teach a new program. So, cobots don’t just work alongside humans to help in task completion.
Humans can play the reverse role by guiding cobots to change the way they perform tasks according to new standards or specifications.
This ease in usability is one of the marketable features of cobots for companies that do not have readily available expert programmers. This feature also appeals to seasoned programmers due to the shorter duration in the whole programming efforts.
As cobots are less heavy-duty, less performance-intensive with lighter payloads compared to industrial robots, the upfront costs are relatively cheaper. These include the costs of installation and system integration. Even small- to medium-sized manufacturers are finding cobots to be within their price range.
Another kind of cost is the cost of ownership. This comes in the form of maintenance costs, additional requirements of parts, and energy consumption.
As cobots are new inventions, they are designed with energy efficiency in mind. So, energy consumption may not make a dent in your wallet.
However, you may need to account for requirements of additional equipment. For example, if your cobot has to pick up parts that vary in shapes and sizes from different spots, then you need to install visual and sensor systems.
It needs a pandemic that has almost crippled the global economy to realize the importance of having lights out operations. What happens if most of your factory workers need to be in quarantine? Do you stop/delay your production? How will this affect your bottom line then?
You can instead have cobots to complete the rest of production tasks with minimal presence of human workforce. And if they have to leave the plant early due to curfews, cobots can be left to continue the tasks at hand, operating a 24-hour production line without violating the Employment Act.
This also applies in normal circumstances. Cobots can complete the remaining tasks after your factory workers leave the facility for the day. While cobots get busy with the programmed tasks, your people can prepare for incoming jobs for the following day.
You benefit from a shortened production cycle, less wastage of time and resources, and better quality end products which translate to larger profit margins.Also read: 5 Best Resource Capacity Planning Tools for Teams
It seems cobots have a commanding presence, projected to grow from $981 million in 2020 to $7,972 million in 2026. However, there are still some rough edges that need smoothing. Here are two of the well-known issues:
It can’t be stressed enough that as cobots are meant to work side-by-side with humans, the security factors should be seriously considered. Cobot manufacturers must adhere to the ISO/TS 15066, a safety standard for collaborative robots.
Security considerations during the build evaluation should include mechanical safety and endurance, electrical and fire hazards, moving parts, fail-safe mechanisms, etc.
Ample functional testing should be done too to ensure that the cobot works as expected in the intended environment.
With IoT in the mix, connected machines that can ‘speak’ to each other are on the rise. For example, a machine that has completed its job can signal another machine to start its procedure without human intervention.
Cobots can also be programmed to interact with other machines or systems depending on the industrial use cases.
Of course, the cybersecurity approach needs to be beefed up to prevent confidential or even operational data leakage that can compromise the whole plant operations. This article provides information about how to improve cybersecurity.Also read: Top 7 Work Operating Systems of 2021
With the right operational planning and strategy, cobots aren’t likely to replace human workforce. In fact, they empower your employees to upskill themselves to contribute directly to crucial KPIs such as increased profitability, cost reduction, and decreased LTI.
Do keep in mind that cobots are not a silver bullet that can solve all your manufacturing and production issues. Just remember the rule of thumb where they can only serve their purposes by working in conjunction with people.
So, expecting cobots to perform heavy-duty tasks at maximum speed with full automation is not the right approach. You should consider having industrial robots instead.
The prospect of having cobots in the workforce is rather an exciting one, especially with the hype around Industry 4.0. But, as with any kind of investment, you need to have a feasibility study first to assess the practicality, viability, and the resources needed.
The study should also determine whether having cobots would really solve your existing issues and provide the desired ROI within the targeted timeline. And once all the pros and cons have been weighed, then you can make an informed decision whether it’s beneficial to have cobots as part of your resources.
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